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Addict Behav. 2003 Aug;28(6):1129-39.

Biphasic stimulant and sedative effects of ethanol: are children of alcoholics really different?

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  • 1Biobehavioral Medicine Program, Derald H. Ruttenberg Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, One Gustave L. Levy Place, Box 1130, New York, NY 10029-6574, USA.


Children of alcoholics (COAs) have an increased risk of developing alcoholism themselves. The mechanisms responsible are not yet known. One compelling theory postulates that COAs may have an increased sensitivity to the stimulant effects of alcohol during the ascending limb of the blood alcohol curve combined with a decreased sensitivity to the putatively undesirable sedative effects of the drug during the descending limb, providing a particularly strong motivation to drink. Consistent with this theory, we hypothesized that compared to children of nonalcoholics (CONAs), COAs would display higher levels of ascending limb stimulation and lower levels of descending limb sedation. In the present study, 100 college students, who were either COAs (n=18) or CONAs (n=82), completed the Biphasic Alcohol Effects Scale (a self-report measure of stimulation and sedation): (1) before consuming 0.85n ml/kg ethanol; (2) during the ascending limb of their BAC, and; (3) during the descending limb of their BAC. Although findings indicated that COAs and CONAs had comparable levels of sedation at each time point, a significant GroupxTime interaction (P<.02) indicated that COAs had greater increases in stimulation from baseline than CONAs, providing partial support for our hypothesis. Interestingly, simple effects analyses revealed that COAs had lower baseline levels of stimulation but almost identical levels of ascending and descending limb stimulation as CONAs, suggesting that increased sensitivity to alcohol among COAs may be the result of baseline understimulation. Overall, findings suggest that theorized differences between COAs and CONAs may be due in part to broader trait differences or other nonpharmacological factors.

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